The Rape of The Lock as a Mock Epic

The Rape of The Lock as a Mock Epic

Q. Discuss Alexander Pope’s The Rape of The Lock as a Mock Epic Poem.

A mock epic takes the epic’s noble crown—decorated with grand speeches, extended similes, the invocation of muses, and more—and places it on the head of an ordinary, everyday subject.

This clever switcheroo not only pokes fun at the subject itself but also questions the values and standards of the society that produces these grand narratives.

The Rape of The Lock as a Mock Epic Poem

“The Rape of the Lock” by Alexander Pope is a fine example of a mock epic. This form parodies the traditional epic by applying its grandiose style and structure to trivial matters.

Pope’s work humorously imitates the conventions of the epic to satirize the societal customs of the 18th-century English aristocracy.

1- Mock-Heroic Figure

Pope’s poem presents a seemingly heroic figure in Belinda, an upper-class lady obsessed with her appearance. The central figure, Belinda, parodies the traditional epic hero. Rather than noble virtues, her actions display vanity and frivolity, as Pope details her meticulous grooming process: 

And now, unveiled, the Toilet stands displayed
Each silver Vase in mystic order laid

2- Limited Setting

In contrast to traditional epics’ grand, world-spanning locales, “The Rape of the Lock” takes place within the confined settings of London drawing rooms and Hampton Court, a notable estate on the River Thames.

By using these trivial locations, Pope satirizes the narrow and self-absorbed world of the English upper class.

Sol through white curtains shot a tim’rous ray,
And oped those eyes that must eclipse the day:
Now lapdogs give themselves the rouzing shake,
And sleepless lovers, just at twelve, awake:
Thrice rung the bell, the slipper knocked the ground,
And the pressed watch returned a silver sound.

Here, the setting is a lady’s bedroom in the morning, indicated by the “white curtains” and the sound of the “pressed watch.” It’s a far cry from the grand landscapes often seen in epics.

Later, in Canto III, the setting moves to Hampton Court during a social gathering:

Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take – and sometimes tea.

This setting is not a battlefield or mythical landscape but a place where people take tea.

3- Trivial Deeds

No grand battles or heroics take place in Pope’s poem. Instead, we have the ‘epic’ moment where a lock of hair is cut, an act that causes much uproar: 

Oh, hadst thou, cruel! Been content to seize
Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these!

4- Supernatural Elements

Pope incorporates supernatural elements like the Sylphs, parodying the divine intervention in true epics. These elemental spirits, however, have very human weaknesses and fail to prevent the poem’s central ‘catastrophe.’

This Nymph, to the Destruction of Mankind,
Nourish’d two Locks which graceful hung behind

5- Elevated Language

Despite the frivolity of his subject, Pope uses elevated, formal language that echoes the heroic couplets of traditional epics. This contrast between the high style and the trivial subject matter is a fundamental aspect of the poem’s satire: 

The Adventrous Baron the bright Locks admir’d,
He saw, he wish’d, and to the Prize aspir’d

6- Invocation of the Muse

Pope mimics the epic convention of invoking the muse in Canto 1. 

What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things,
I sing—This verse to Caryll, Muse! is due:
This, ev’n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:
Slight is the subject, but not so the praise,
If She inspire, and He approve my lays.

In these lines, Pope parodies the grand invocations of ancient epics. He addresses his ‘Muse’, John Caryll, who is, in fact, a friend who had suggested the subject of the poem to him. 

Pope’s reference to ‘am’rous causes’ and ‘mighty contests rise from trivial things’ hints at the absurdity of the quarrel he is about to relate, thereby setting the stage for the mock epic that follows.

This invocation of the muse is another way Pope subverts traditional epic conventions to create satire.

7- In Medias Res

Pope begins the narrative in medias res, recounting Belinda’s dream, which is essentially a warning of the ‘terrible’ event. It is a playful imitation of the epic convention of beginning during the action.

Betwixt her Mirth and Tears the Prologue cry’d,
Why, why are thou sad?

8- Mock-Epic Similes

Pope uses elaborate similes to describe ordinary events, as in the card game in Canto 3, where a game of Ombre becomes an intense, epic battle:

Let Spades be Trumps, she said, and Trumps they were

Pope employs epic similes throughout the poem, using them to inflate the significance of trivial actions satirically.

For example, when the Baron is about to cut the lock, Pope draws a grand comparison to a biblical event:

Then flashed the living lightning from her eyes,
And screams of horror rend th’ affrighted skies.
Not louder shrieks to pitying heaven are cast,
When husbands, or when lapdogs breathe their last.

The reaction to the cutting of the lock is exaggerated to epic proportions, elevating a moment of petty mischief to a monumental event.

9- Episodic Structure

Pope applies the episodic structure standard in epics to his poem, breaking down the narrative into five cantos, each with a central event, thereby inflating the importance of trivial actions.

10- Trivial Themes

While traditional epics deal with grand themes like honour, courage, and fate, “The Rape of the Lock” focuses on the petty concerns of high society, like beauty, reputation, and propriety. In Canto I, we see Belinda’s elaborate dressing table, which is described almost like an altar, with cosmetics and combs instead of religious artifacts:

And now, unveiled, the Toilet stands displayed,
Each silver Vase in mystic order laid.

11- Cataloguing

Pope mimics the epic convention of cataloguing. Instead of listing warriors or ships, he catalogues items on Belinda’s dressing table:

Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux

12- Role of Prophecy

The role of prophecy is humorously incorporated with Ariel’s warning to Belinda about the impending disaster. However, the ‘disaster’ is far from the epic’s catastrophic events—it is merely the cutting of a lock of hair.

Beware of all, but most beware of Man!

13- Mock-Battles

Pope’s poem The Rape of The Lock has no wars or heroic battles. Instead, we have the game of Ombre and the ‘epic’ confrontation between Belinda and the Baron over a lock of hair. These incidents, framed in terms of battles, satirize the idea of warfare in traditional epics.

She said: then raging to Sir Plume repairs,
And bids her Beau demand the precious Hairs

15- The Journey

There is no profound journey or heroic quest in “The Rape of the Lock.” Instead, Belinda travels from home to a social event, an ordinary journey that Pope treats with mock seriousness.

In conclusion, Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” cleverly subverts the traditional elements of the epic to create a mock epic that provides a satirical commentary on the society of his time.

The poem highlights the trivial concerns and follies of the English aristocracy by framing them within the grand structure of an epic. In doing so, Pope not only mocks the pretensions and frivolity of the upper classes but also parodies the conventions of the epic form itself.


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